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What is the difference between true love and sexual attraction?

Updated on February 8, 2016

Researchers give answers

How do love and sexual attraction relate and how do they conflict?

Both true love and sexual attraction imply connection; and, believe it or not, neuroscience proves that connection is the utmost basic human need. As, once we connect with others, we can rely on them to help us survive. They fulfill our complex lives. The essential difference between sex and love is that the needs they satisfy are somewhat opposed.

To be sure, the attraction starts in our brains and dominates our entire body, recruiting all our senses. First, our biology speaks up. Being interested implies being visually drawn towards someone. The senses of smell, hear, and touch also play their part.

So then, the initial connection being established, what helps us identify if we are sexually attracted or in love? The answer is given by the needs we most want the other person to fulfill.

Love is "to have"

First of all, Esther Perel, relationship therapist, determines that

if there is a verb [..] that comes with love, it's ‘to have.’

She states that love fulfills the needs for safety, reliability, predictability, belonging, identity, comfort.

Terri Orbuch, another researcher that studied romance and relationship patterns, pinpoints telling signs for an “in love” state.

  • Indeed, when you are in love you wish that your partner connects with your existing life, with all those important to you. You long to spend time together as a community.
  • Accordingly, when expressing yourself, you use “we language” and not “I language”. That signifies that your lives are intertwined, you think of the two of you as being a couple.
  • When you are in love, you want to tell your partner about your dreams and aspirations, about things you have not confided to many people, secrets never told.
  • Likewise, what one partner does or wants to do, influences the other in a meaningful and strong way. Therefore, moving to another town, job issues, exceptional situations, are moments you would rather experience with your partner by your side. (Terri Orbuch)

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) | Source

The search for an Other

In comparison, the verb that defines sexual attraction is "to want”. The needs behind it are those for adventure, mystery, risk, transcendence, awe.

In desire, we want an Other [...] Desire needs space

determines Esther Perel

Adding on, the findings of Terri Orbuch show that you experience solely sexual attraction when:

  • you are drown to someone based only on physical arousal. In this state you idealize them, see them for who you want them to be, or need them to be, and not for who they truly are.
  • You keep them separate from your friends. You use “I language”, you don’t have the picture of you two forming a couple.
  • When you are in lust, you peel off only some superficial layers of your existence. You tell your partner about your interests, hobbies, movies, music preferences, but you don’t go to your deep core.
  • Identically, you don’t involve them in the essential decisions you make, you don’t share important parts of your life with them. (Terri Orbuch)

Manufacturing love

A psychological experiment meant to make people fall in love proved, also, that love requires intimacy, knowledge, identity, and togetherness.

To be known, to be seen, to be understood

Mandy Len Catron

In order to fall in love, 2 strangers take turns in asking each other 36 progressively more personal questions. After that, they stare into each other's eyes in silence for 4 minutes. The experiment became popular last year when Mandy Len Catron wrote in The New York Times about her own experience with "manufacturing romantic love".

If you have seen scenes from Marina Abramović’s installation “The Artist Is Present”, where she sits immobile while strangers take turns sitting opposite her, you might gather that the starring part indeed creates an intense medium. Add to that intimate revelations. It is no wonder that people do fall in love. A subsequent question arose: does their love last?

Presenting in a Ted Talk 6 months after her article became popular, Mandy Len Catron revealed how she was bombarded with this question. Her beautiful answer was that yes, her love did last. Yet, more importantly, she learned that love does not last due to the circumstances in which it is born. The start offers no guarantees. She reveals that

falling in love was the easy part

Love is a continuous choice. Love is a principle. Love lasts because people make the choice to make it last, to continuously work on their issues.

creativecommons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
creativecommons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic | Source

Forever ever?

To sum up, what is true love?

The above ideas reveal that true love blends together both love and sexual attraction. We desire and need it all.

One problem is that love needs “to have”; so then, it can become suffocating or at least needy. The other problem is that sexual attraction fades easily. Also, it pulls in the opposite direction of love, it needs to explore, to discover. As Esther Perel stated, desire needs space, and as presented, love means interconnection.

Both researchers agree that in maintaining sexual attraction or desire alive, imagination plays an important role. Distance makes partners long for each other. Another attraction trigger is seeing the partner radiant, self-sustained, confident. With no neediness present. The element of novelty is, also, important. (Esther Perel)

Therefore, true love includes the courage of autonomy; furthermore, it needs self-knowledge and openness to continually discover the other. In the end, as Esther Perel puts it, true love might be

connection and separateness at the same time.


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